Training the Memory with a Classical Education
In the Dickens novel Great Expectations, Estella admits, “There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.” So it is today with the lost art of training the memory through education.
A classical education seeks to strengthen the mind and nurture the soul through meaning and memory with practice. This is for all students. Consider these words written in the 1500s, when Christian humanists sought to reclaim classical education:
Students must daily be given something which trains both understanding and memory. Indeed, … as much must be offered as the powers of their memory and the nature of the subject matter can accommodate. Even material which they have already learned once must be repeated at brief intervals.¹
Understanding Through Questioning
Contrary to misconceptions and common accusations heard today from our progressive teaching peers, classical educators seek understanding and mental training; we do not seek mere “rote memory work” as an end in itself. But we do see memory work as a valuable means to noble ends. Questioning assists understanding, but the questioning occurs at the proper time for the child’s mind. With the younger child this often takes the form of catechetical question and answer. Example: “Who is the Lord?” (“The Lord is God.”) Memoria Press’ English Grammar Recitation program teaches grammar in this efficient manner. In later years, students will learn to analyze deftly and express themselves eloquently using all that is retained in the memory, when Socratic questioning leads to greater understanding of the meaning and, ultimately, to truth.
Memory Work Is Good Practice
Cognitive neuroscientist Daniel T. Willingham notes that untrained students “tend to gauge their knowledge based on their feeling-of-knowing as they read over their notes,” they get an increased feeling of familiarity. But a feeling of familiarity is not the same thing as “knowing.”² For this reason, Willingham suggests, “Students should study until they know the material and then keep studying.”
In a classical education, recitation promotes this theory of over-learning in a timeless, satisfying way. The practiced responses instill in students poise, conﬁdence, and a vast fund of knowledge with only a brief investment of time each day. A good recitation is a joy to behold. Such a recitation can be accomplished in both home and school. Oral recitations can begin the day or the subject area to impress essential knowledge and understanding upon consequently strengthened memories. Similarly, the ancient practice of copying by hand assists memorization. Whether poetry, Holy Scripture, or the days of the week, Memoria Press Copybook exercises give students something worthwhile and often lovely to memorize.
Try these ﬁve steps for any child, especially the child who needs to strengthen his “working memory,” the term for holding material in ones mind for good use and application in his studies.
1. Introduce the whole, but teach in small bites.
2. Have the students echo each new portion. “The Lord …” (The Lord) “is my Shepherd …” (is my Shepherd).
3. Work on the partial memory passages each day, but always let them hear the verse as a whole.
4. Add new bites until fully memorized.
5. Establish a schedule for ongoing review.
Follow these steps for math facts, Latin sayings or declensions, hymn stanzas, and more.
Learn by Heart
More than merely assimilating large chunks of “useless information,” as some assume, all is enfolded into the child’s education over time with enriching results. For this reason, much of classical Christian memory work may be better characterized by a more appealing phrase: learn by heart.
When my children were very young, they learned all of Psalm 23 with the ﬁve steps described above. The Little Golden Book The Lord Is My Shepherd served as the whole, poetic impression, with the psalm sung at the end. Due to my children’s special needs, they learned it in small portions, but they learned. As mentioned in my book, Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for any Child, not long after they learned it we had the poignant privilege to sing this psalm at the bedside of an aged friend before she died. Because the psalm had been learned by heart, the words could be shared freely.
Memoria Press founder Cheryl Lowe named her publishing house after the Latin word for “memory.” She once explained, “I came up with the name ‘Memoria’ (memoria,-ae) because memory is so foundational to a classical education and is completely counter-cultural to progressive education. Training the memory is the ﬁrst practical task of the teacher. Training teachers to focus on memorization in the classroom is really the ﬁrst practical step in turning that teacher away from modern education to traditional classical education.
Let us carry on with diligence, joy, and delight as Mrs. Lowe envisioned, because when we give our children strong memories, we give them stronger minds.
¹Sturm, Johann, in Johann Sturm on Education: The Reformation and Humanist Learning, 91. Specifically, in 1538 Sturm recommended memory training for anyone opening an “Elementary School of Letters.”
²Willingham, Daniel T. “What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?” American Educator, Winter, 2008-2009, 22.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2018 edition